Turkish coffeehouses must be divided into two: old coffeehouses and new coffeehouses. The latter cannot even be called a distant cousin of the old coffeehouses.
The first coffeehouse ever was opened in 1554 during the reign of
Suleyman the Magnificent. Two people, one person from Aleppo and another from Damascus have opened this coffeehouse jointly in the Tahtakale district of Istanbul, a vibrant commercial center even today. The first people to attend this first coffeehouse were people pursuing the mundane pleasures of idly enjoying the moment (there is a specific word for this in Turkish called “keyif”), but also the educated class of the society. Some would come to read in the coffeehouse, other would play backgammon or chess, some would delve into conversations on art and culture. As other coffeehouses mushroomed, however, the unemployed, troublemakers, and the retired became regulars of coffeehouses. Imams, muezzins (those who sing the call to prayer), and high ranking officials would regularly go to coffeehouses.
This sparked a movement by the conservative sections of the society whereby they tried to discourage youth to attend coffeehouses. During the reign of sultan Murad the Third coffee and therefore coffeehouses were banned. However, the ban was lifted during the reign of subsequent sultans.
There were also a number of coffeehouses with decorative pools that opened during the Ottoman period, as Ottomans believed on the soothing power of watching water. These coffeehouses were built at places with the best panoramic views of the city. The porch was covered with kilims and rugs and there was a decorative pool at the center. The walls were covered with cups of all kinds and nargiles with silver or gold caps.
The coffeehouses were subsidized by the local rich people. The introduction of tobacco has increased these places’ popularity tremendously. Canaries were considered “good luck” for janissary coffeehouses. In a big coffeehouses there would be as many as thirty to forty birdcages. The tradition of big and highly ornate coffeehouses has suffered a big blow along with the abolishment of the janissary order.
However, today the entire city of Istanbul and the entire country are filled with coffeehouses numbering probably hundreds of thousands. They are different from their predecessors, with TV sets, card games and backgammon providing the entertainment in addition to the friendly conversation. The life of the coffeehouse revolves much less around drinking coffee, which has been replaced by tea as the beverage of choice. Still, coffee is consumed in large amounts and coffeehouses continue to form the center of social interaction for a lot of Turkish men, who can stop by in their favorite coffee shop with the knowledge that they will almost certainly find a friend to chat away some part of the day.
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